There’s been this video going more or less viral, about how people walked differently in medieval times. It’s spread a lot, and it finally arrived at the rock that I live under, and I watched it.

And went Aaaaaaaaaaarrggh.

In case you haven’t seen it, it has been posted over at Boingboing. In case you don’t really want to watch it, there’s a guy dressed in late medieval stuff telling you that medieval folks walked on the balls of their feet, and because we are stupid lazy modern shoe-wearing people, we are not doing that anymore, even though it is much healthier and cooler and whatnot.

Okay. Here’s the thing. In list format. With numbers, to hide the fact that it’s not very structured rambling…

  1. “People in the Middle Ages walked differently than we do today” – yes, probably. Just like modern people who walk barefoot mostly or all of the time walk slightly differently than shoe-wearers. There are studies about that, like for instance this one: The effects of habitual footwear use: foot shape and function in native barefoot walkers (K. D’Août et al, Footwear Science Vol. 1, No. 2, June 2009, 81–94). The very short version: Habitually barefoot people have the same high-pressure spots on the sole when walking, but pressure peaks are a bit lower, and it’s not completely clear how that is achieved. There’s another paper looking at sandals, flip-flops, barefoot and shoes here. It’s fascinating stuff!
  2. The fact that there are differences between habitual barefoot walkers and shod people, however, does not mean that the completely exaggerated way the guy in the video shows is “natural”. There are situations when you put the ball of the foot first, yes – like when you are tip-toeing to be silent, or don’t want to touch much of the ground, or if you are running at high speeds. Now if there were a typical very strong difference between placement of the foot ball-first or heel-first in barefoot people and shoe-wearers… don’t you think some of the studies about differences in gait would mention this?
  3. Also, “walking heel-first is actually detrimental to your health”? Erm. Humans are plantigrades, just like their colleagues over in the ape section, and a lot of other mammals. We change from the sole to the ball of the foot when running, or dancing, or fighting, yes – but usually, the heel comes first. And guess what? It is actually constructed for this, with a strong heel bone under which there’s cushioning stuff.
  4. “When we can be lazy, we are.” Well. Yes. Maybe. But why on freaking earth would the medieval people then not have been lazy? Anyone? Grrr. Either lazyness is a basic human trait, then there’s no reason at all why medieval people would have been less lazy, or it’s not, then there’s no reason why people would not still walk that other way today.
  5. Shoes with framed construction and lightweight shoes both influence how you walk; there might be a difference in how much they do this, but the medieval shoe does not count as no footwear. See, for instance, this paper about how even minimalist footwear influences running.
  6. If you’ve ever tried walking this way, you will quickly realise that it does not feel natural and it also does not feel efficient. Also, I can ball-silly-walk even with a really bad posture no problem. So can the most patient husband of them all.
  7. Medieval artwork that shows people on the balls of the feet shows them in specific situations. Fencers are still on the ball of their foot today, just like dancers. Other people depicted with a nice sexy foot sticking out of their garments? I’d say it is important for this to keep in mind that what the sixpack-belly is for today’s sexiness scale, the leg used to be in medieval times. Sexy legs were… sexy. Nobody cared for your belly definition. (Well, nice extra, probably. But legs were the thing.) Which might explain a few of the displayed non-dancing, non-fencing legs in artwork.

As stated before: Aaargh.

Posted in and now for something completely different | 2 Comments

There are so, so many open questions left around the man found in the Bernuthsfeld bog. Who was he? What was his job, if he had one? He definitely wasn’t rich, but how poor was he?

There’s also plenty of questions regarding his tunic… one of them being the colour question, as usual when some bog-brown textile is found. There was a dye analysis done, but the results were rather sketchy, with only quercetin found as a definitive dyestuff ingredient.

Well, we have a tunic that is put together from a lot of different pieces of fabric, most if not all of them already in their second, maybe even third or fourth use. Chances are very, very high that there were not only all kinds of fabrics, but also all kinds of colours… which we don’t have definitive proof of.

Quercetin is, however, found in many different plants – among them woad (isatis tinctoria) and birch leaf. So for the reconstruction, we decided to leave some of the fabrics undyed (especially those with interesting natural wool colours), and to use birch and indigo (the latter rather sparingly) on others.

The nice thing about natural dyes is that you can get so many different hues from one plant that it won’t be boring at all. So we were, after a lot of discussion and brainstorming and thinking, going for two different hues of blue, one double-dye of green (birch yellow with blue), and several different colours made with birch. For that, we did a nice little test run with pieces of fabric, all mordanted with 25% alum, then dyed in 200% dried birch leaf, then nuanced with iron, copper, iron plus cream of tartar, and potash. One of the yellow bits was dipped into an indigo vat, and then all of the candidates (except the yellow bit that went into the potash right away) were rinsed, split and half of them thrown into the potash brine over night.

The results were rather spectacular:


As usual, it’s very hard to give a good impression of the colours on a photograph – natural dyes look very different in reality than on a picture, and they can even change hue depending on the light angle, let alone depending on light colour and quality. So you’ll have to believe me that the green achieved by iron sulfate nuancing looks really green (until you hold it next to the indigo-on-yellow green, when it looks like someone dropped it into a mud puddle), that there’s beautiful soft browns to be gotten with copper and that nuancing the yellow with potash gets you an orangey colour that is utterly, utterly beautiful.

Also as usual, the actual dye run yielded slightly different results to the test run – but we were both quite happy with the outcome, and the tunic reconstruction will look colourful enough to give an impression of the many colours in medieval times, yet will only have used two dyestuffs that we have hints for in the analysis.

Also also? Dyeing is fun.

Posted in reconstructions, togs from bogs | Leave a comment

Apart from the work on the Bernuthsfeld tunic, I’m also preparing for my bit of programme for the European Textile Forum, which is drawing closer and closer. In the usual mix of optimism (“I can do that! In time! No problem! At all!”), enthusiasm (“This is such a fascinating topic!”) and anti-procrastination planning (“If I hand in a title and abstract for this conference, I will finally make the time to sit down and actually get some more research done on this, just what I wanted to do for so long”), I signed myself up for a presentation and practical session about tablet-weaving.

With, of course, an angle – I’m trying to figure out possible ways in which medieval tablet-weavers might have arrived at their patterns, which are sometimes really, really breathtakingly complicated. There’s rules to tablet-weaving, so you can’t just place a carton with a drawing behind your warp and tapestry away; you have to plan ahead for the patterns and know when to reverse which direction, and keep track of your main direction of turning when you are doing twill, and so on and so forth.

While the basic rules and structures are fairly simple (I usually say that you need to be able to tell light from dark and count to two), keeping track of what has to go where in a complicated pattern can quickly bend your brain into knots. I’ve tried to figure out a few strategies using a part of the pattern of the Maniple of St. Ulrich, but that, alas, turned out to be a hard start. You can see how the pattern degenerates from my trying to use less of the written pattern draft and more of my own brain:


until I finally gave up and transitioned again into nice, clean pink background twill. (There’s even a fault in the twill lines where I gave up, and a little bit of erring in the twill later on, as you can see from the floats and the blue spots.)

So. Next step was taking a step back and trying to build up things from the base line – in this case, from a single or double blue line on twill background. (It would of course be possible to forego the twill background and just do diagonals, but I think it’s clearer to see the pattern afterwards if it is on a solid colour background. So there you go. Also… I like twill in tablet weaving.)

There are certain patterns and rhythms to much of the weaving, and I think that a large part of the trick is to learn those patterns and basic rhythms, and learn when to look where to make sure nothing unplanned is happening. Also: Rules. Hard and firm rules regarding the sequence of the individual steps to be done (turning tablets, inserting wefts, and re-sorting tablets) as well as the base setup (one direction of turning will always result in the stripes running the same way for me, or I will go crazy).


And then, more patterns can be built up on that. Next step: lines branching out from lines, and figuring out how to figure out when to reverse directions for pointy bits growing out of nowhere…

Posted in tablet weaving, textile techniques and tools | 3 Comments

You might remember that a while ago, I posted about having a project for a reproduction of the tunic worn by the man from Bernuthsfeld.

Well, it’s time to get the project into the next stage – which means I’m getting to see the original, and will be starting work on the actual tunic-making together with my colleague. So I’ll be off doing exciting things to cloth for the next few days, and thus be taking a break from blogging – I will be back on October 16.

Meanwhile, I will leave you here with a picture of the fabrics that were woven for the tunic and a small mantle-like cloth:

Fabrics woven for the Bernuthsfeld-Project - lots and lots of different ones, many of them just small patches...

Fabrics woven for the Bernuthsfeld-Project – lots and lots of different ones, many of them just small patches…

And just because I have them, here are a few more pictures of some bits, close-up:


bernie_a bernie_c bernie_d bernie_f

It’s going to be so much fun to dye a selection of the fabrics, then cut everything up, roughen them a bit to simulate use-wear, and stitch them together into the tunic!

Posted in Bernuthsfeld Man, reconstructions, togs from bogs | 3 Comments

What about these small spindle wheels with crank drive, though? They did get a mention already. Usually, the really small ones are winding wheels to wind bobbins or pirns for weaving, and are not really suitable for spinning. That does not mean they cannot be used for spinning at all – they can, and I know of a few people who have used them for just that, and there are even a few old illustrations showing them used as spinning wheels – though these might not be the really small ones, but medium-sized wheels.


Detail from: Tobit en Anna met het geitje, Symon Novelanus, 1560 – 1590; etching, h 213mm × w 180mm. Rijksmuseum NL, see the original file here.

In my opinion, centre-crank-driven wheels are not really suited for production spinning due to the stop-and-start procedure already mentioned in depth. On old illustrations, these smaller spindle-equipped wheels are often found in the context of weaving workshops – there might also be some spinning shown in these pictures, but the presence of looms makes it pretty clear to me that we have winding wheels in action here.

Small wheels, centre-crank-driven and equipped with a flyer, however, are a different beast altogether, and they were definitely used for spinning, as lots and lots of pictures show.


Detail of Arbeidzaamheid, Crispijn van de Passe (I), 1589 – 1611, engraving, h 211mm × w 144mm. Rijksmuseum NL, see the original file here.

The game-changer here is the flyer, though, as it eliminates the need to stop and start the drive wheel by conveniently twisting and winding the spun yarn at the same time. So once you’ve brought your wheel up to convenient speed, you can happily crank on to keep that speed and spin with your free hand.

Old Woman Spinning, Nicolaes Maes, 1650 - 1660; oil on canvas, h 63cm × w 55cm × d 9cm.

Old Woman Spinning, Nicolaes Maes, 1650 – 1660; oil on canvas, h 63cm × w 55cm × d 9cm.
Rijksmuseum NL, see the original file here.

So – centre-crank driven wheel with spindle – winding wheel, centre-crank driven wheel with flyer – spinning wheel; though this is not a Great Wheel, then, obviously.

Also obviously, turning the crank requires one hand, leaving only one hand free for drafting. This means these wheels are always shown with an attached or accompanying distaff to hold the fibre and provide some resistance for drafting. Since the speed that you can build up turning the crank on the small wheel and the ratio between the wheel and the flyer pulley is not going to be very high, these wheels will not give you a yarn with particularly high twist, and the bobbins do not look large enough to accommodate sensible quantities of really thick yarn, which would be nicely stable with relatively little twist. So my personal opinion is that these spinning tools were predominantly used for flax/hemp/nettle, long fibres that do not need a large amount of twist and that can be drafted quite easily with one hand only.

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Now that you know my thoughts on what is important on a spindle wheel for spinning, you might want to check out what other people think, or get some more information about these wheels, and a few other perspectives on them

As usual, there’s some stuff to be found on the Internets. One very nice article with pictures of different kinds of spindle bearings on Great Wheels is the one Lee Juvan wrote for Knitty. She also lists some literature in that piece, including literature for tips on how to spin with this drafting style. Another collection of spindle wheel heads can be found here, including a nice example of a Minor’s Head. Another several examples are in the collection of Old Sturbridge Village Museum.

If you want to buy an antique (or even a modern) Great Wheel for your spinning, I’d strongly recommend to take a look at the wheel and try before you buy. This, obviously, might not be possible in all cases – the wheel might need some tender loving care, or work being done, before it will spin, or it might be too far away for you to travel before buying. In this case, you’ll have to depend on the seller’s description plus photographs and your own judgement – and in the end, hope that you are lucky and get what you are looking for. Blind-buying spinning wheels of any kind is not something I’d recommend, but if you have to, don’t hesitate to ask for detail pictures of crucial bits, or specific questions about the wheel and its parts.

If you are looking into building one of these beasts yourself, there’s one whole issue about Great Wheels in the Spinning Wheel Sleuth, a newsletter just about spinning wheels – it’s the October 2014 issue. You can also check out the articles on this blog tagged “building a Whool Wheel”, and feel free to ask questions in the comments – I’ll try to be as helpful as possible.

Whether you are planning to do the building yourself or have a woodworker/spinning wheel maker do it for you, previous experience with ordering tools from craftspeople has taught me this: Make sure the person building the thing really, really understands what are the important bits, how the thing works, and how it is going to be used. If you have not spun on a Great Wheel before, I’d advise you to try and get that experience before you get one yourself, whatever way you will use to get it. Having a personal experience and understanding how the process works will help you explain to your crafter what to watch out for.

When planning out the wheel, make sure you pay attention to where the wheel hub will be, height-wise, compared to you as the spinner – you want it at a place where you can comfortably keep the wheel in motion without bending down or stretching up. Make sure the bench construction carrying the wheel is sturdy enough to support the wheel without wobbling. Alignment of the wheel and spindle, as well as appropriate weight for the wheel (as light as possible would be my advice) are the other key points.

Make a list beforehand of the things that are important for you. Make drawings. Then make sure the important things are all duly understood, and incorporated into the design. Communication with crafters can be difficult if they have no understanding on how this wheel works, and chances are high that your normal woodworker, or even your normal modern-ish flyer spinning wheel maker, will not know how Great Wheels tick, and what to look out for. So be prepared – maybe even bring a video showing how spinning is done on such a wheel.

Happy hunting, building or commissioning your wheel!

Posted in building a Wool Wheel, spinning | Leave a comment

Occasionally, I get questions about spindle wheels in my mail, usually from people on the hunt for one, and sometimes including the question about where mine is from. There’s several possibilites to get one – ebay is certainly one, though you’ll have to have it shipped, or find a way to get it transported to you, which might be difficult, as these wheels tend to be rather large. There’s woodworkers who might be willing to make one, or you can go for it and make one yourself, like I did. There’s one plan available on how to build a wheel, and I think I actually did buy that plan at one point, years and years ago, but never actually used it.

No matter which way you are going to go for, the most important thing, in my opinion, is that you know what to look at so you get an actual working, functioning tool. So what are the important bits of a Great Wheel, or Spindle Wheel?

Obviously, since it’s called a Spindle Wheel, one of the important bits is… the spindle. The second important bit is the wheel itself. Let’s start with the latter.

The wheel has to hold and take along the driveband which in turn moves the spindle itself, which is usually set into a bit of wood with one or several grooves to hold the driveband. In some cases, there’s an additional ratio-changing construction between the main wheel and the spindle, called a Minor’s Head or sometimes Miner’s Head.

The important things here are: The wheel has to be aligned well enough with the spindle or minor’s head to avoid sideways pull on the driveband; the spindle has to turn smoothly in its bearings (which can take any number of shapes), and tension of the drive band needs to be high enough to avoid (too much) slippage, but otherwise as low as possible (as usual on spinning wheels). The spindle should be straight and taper towards a point; that point does not need to be needle-sharp, but it should be pretty pointy, as when spinning, the thread glides over the spindle tip with each rotation. So if your spindle wobbles, and/or has a broad tip, this adds to the “yank” you will get when the yarn goes over the tip. Less yanking means you have a smoother spinning feeling, and I find it easier to do a good, even yarn with a smooth spinning feeling.

The second important bit, the wheel. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Medieval Great Wheels are great because there is no Minor’s Head, so you need to get all of your rotational speed needs satisfied by the ratio between wheel and spindle. For a rather high-twist yarn, which we will assume is the goal of the medieval spinner in most cases, this means you want a big ratio so you don’t spend an eternity turning the wheel… and that means: small spindle pulley wheel diameter, large wheel. This is still the case with the later wheels, though you can get a higher ratio with a smaller main wheel when using a Minor’s Head (which was patented by Amos Minor or Miner – both variations of the name can be found – in 1810). The Knitting Geneaologist also has an interesting article about the Great Wheel vs. the flyer wheel (inspired by someone else’s blog post, but an interesting read even if you don’t look at the inspiration).

Since you have to turn the wheel with one hand, there’s two options… in theory. Option one is one-sided mounting of the wheel, which is what you typically see on the Great Wheels. Option two is mounting the wheel with an axle on both sides in two supports, and fixing a crank to the axle on one side so you can turn the wheel with the crank. This is sometimes seen on small wheels with a spindle, and quite common on early flyer wheels. It is not a true option for a Great Wheel, though – because of the spinning procedure.

When spinning on a Great Wheel, you have a non-continuous process, just like in spindle spinning. This means you turn the wheel and draft your fiber, then turn some more until you have sufficient twist in the yarn. During this process, the yarn glides over the top of the spindle tip, forming a spiral from the base of the spindle (where you store your finished yarn) to its tip. Once your length is spun, you have to stop the wheel, turn it backwards a little to un-wind the spiral back to the spindle base, and then start turning it again in spinning direction to first wind up the finished yarn, then spin the next length.

This means you have to stop and speed up your wheel all the time while spinning, all with one hand. If you are doing this with a little crank in the middle of the wheel, it is much, much harder to do than when you can access the whole length of the wheel spoke – you can slide your hand towards the rim of the wheel for stopping and starting, getting a much better leverage and thus needing much less strength, and slide it towards the hub to maintain rotational speed with small, easy motions of your hand and arm.

The starting and stopping all the time also explains why the wheels on this spinning tool look so light and airy, and don’t have the solid rims we know from pedal-driven flyer spinning wheels. From my own experience, I can tell you that each gram does count when you are spinning, and you want your wheel to be as light as possible. The wheel on my own construction weighs in at about 2.7 kg, and that is with a very wide rim (about 11 cm) and a diameter of 115 cm. When I start spinning, it seems all light and nice and fine, but after a while, you can really feel the arm muscles getting more and more tired – it definitely does need training, and building up some endurance in the arm.

So this is why you want a wheel that turns easily in its bearing (even though that can be as simple as a metal axle through a block of wood, like in my case) and does not weigh much – which is achieved by slender spokes and a rim that is not from solid pieces of wood, but from a steam-bent strip of wood. The smaller the distance between your spindle and your drive wheel, and the less inherently wobbly your construction, the narrower this rim can be. My wheel is designed to be taken apart and travel, which is not what the original wheels would have done, so I went for a really wide rim. This has proved to be a good idea – I’ve had the driveband wander off the drive wheel even with this large width when my things were not properly aligned, as they tend to do right after setting up.

So, to sum up – non-wobbly, straight, adequately pointy spindle, in good alignment with a light, large drive wheel that is mounted on one side only. These are the things that will make your Great Wheel a great tool.


Posted in building a Wool Wheel, spinning | 2 Comments